Monday, April 09, 2012

The Death and Life of the Great American School System: Part One

The Death and Life of the Great American School System: Part One


Currently I am reading The Death and Life of the Great American School System by Diane Ravitch. Ravitch was for a long time an enthusiastic supporter of the choice and accountability movement in education reform. Her book is a very public way of breaking with that movement. I’m not all the way through it, but I’ll try to lay out some of the themes of the book, and by extension the current reform movement, and why it’s on the wrong path despite some limited successes. Part one of my book review will focus on the early parts of the book and the San Diego and New York reforms.

The reformers, for all their talk of choice, are often (though not always) obsessed with top-down reforms. Ravitch details the twin reform eras of San Diego (under Alan Bersin) and New York City. It’s pretty galling how little those charged with reform care about the input of actual educators. There are various reasons for this phenomenon:

Reformers in San Diego and New York tended to think that only authoritarian, top-down leadership can "shake things up." Knock enough skulls together and you get results. This is the shock and awe version of education reform. It’s also highly undemocratic.
Reformers tended to ignore the input of teachers, administrators, and parents. They fiound sympathetic voices in academia and in charitable foundations to bulwark their reforms in the intellectual sphere.
Reformers tended to blame teachers, principals, and others members of the "status quo" for the problems with education. Most education reforms in the past decade and a half have been aimed at breaking up teachers’ unions.
Reformers did not pay much attention to the substance of education so much as they pay attention to the procedural side of things. Rather than focus on curriculum, reformers focus on uniformity in pedagogy and strictly regimented ideas on how to teach (specifically to tests).
Reformers focused only on testable subjects, primarily math and reading, because accountability has become the golden goose of education reform.
It really is extraordinary to read about the authoritarian San Diego reforms that preceded the Bloomberg era, and directly inspired the efforts of Joel Klein, chancellor of the New York City Department of Education – and the very mixed results of those reforms. Bloomberg managed to gain total control of the school system in New York, something that the mayor’s office hadn’t had in decades, and he passed that control over to Klein without oversight. Indeed, there is not and never has been oversight of the Bloomberg reforms.

The central theme of these reformers is not just to blame the teachers, but also to ignore them, spy on them, and undermine their autonomy. In San Diego there were public firings of school administrators who were escorted from their schools by the police. In both cities, money was filtered out of the classroom and out of support services like teachers’ aides, and put into professional development programs which were aimed at top-down pedagogical reform. Teachers and administrators who didn’t like it were fired or resigned. Turnover in both cities was enormous. Roughly 90% of San Diego’s principals left over the course of six years. In both cities, Balanced Literacy became the only approved teaching method. Dissent was not tolerated.

In New York, closing schools became a new fetish for reformers. If a school didn’t perform up to city standards, it was closed. Some of its students moved to other public schools or charter schools. Often the lowest performing students were shuffled off to other low-performing schools. New "small schools" were created to replace the big schools. At first the admissions to these new schools were selective and the results were great; as more and more low-performing students landed in the small schools they began performing just as poorly (or worse) than the schools they had replaced. It went on and on like this, with new top-down initiatives, poorly construed tests and a rating system for schools that was incoherent at best, and conflicted directly with state and national rating systems. Businessmen and politicians, often bringing in six-figure incomes, tried to implement top-down reforms on teachers and administrators without asking for input or buy-in, and punishing schools and educators for not meeting their arbitrary standards.

I'll go into the choice movement in my next post. For now, I'm left with the following thought: You cannot approach reform from a top-down position only. Education is inherently democratic in the US, and inherently localized. Schools and teachers need to be accountable but also autonomous and able to explore creative ways to educate their diverse classrooms. Unfortunately, when education reformers with no teaching experience try to approach reform they do so too often from the top down rather than from the bottom up. This is the first fundamental mistake of the modern reform movement.

In part two I will discuss school choice.



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